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Tesla denies firing of Autopilot workers in Buffalo was retaliation for trying to unionize

Two days after Tesla fired dozens of workers at its plant in Buffalo, New York, the electric car maker denied the firings were related to a union campaign launched at the facility earlier this week. 

In a blog post, Tesla said the decision to fire the employees was made February 3 as part of the company's regular performance-evaluation process. 

Tesla said that about 4% of the Autopilot labeling team in Buffalo was fired as a result of reviews. 

"The employees let go as part of this process received prior feedback on their poor performance from their managers over the course of the review period. Despite feedback, they did not demonstrate sufficient improvement," the company said. It characterized employees' claim of retaliation as "a false allegation." Tesla said that of the 27 workers it fired, only one was involved in the union drive. 

However, Tesla Workers United estimates that between 40 and 50 workers at the facility were fired, based on numbers in an internal chat group and names it has collected. The workers, who were dismissed on Wednesday and Thursday, "were not given a phase-out period," the group said in an email. 

"They were taken out of the blue for [one-on-ones] and by the time they left the meeting their personal belongings were boxed up for them," the union said.

There are over 600 workers in Buffalo's autopilot unit, according to Tesla, who are paid about $19 or $20 an hour. The facility makes chargers, solar roofs and other electronics.

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The Rochester Regional Joint Council of Workers United filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board this week claiming that Tesla "terminated these individuals in retaliation for union activity and to discourage union activity." The board's Buffalo regional office is investigating the charge, a spokesperson for the NLRB said. If the board determines that Tesla broke the law, it can go to court to get workers reinstated.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from upstate New York, expressed concern with Tesla's actions. "Workers have the right to organize a union without facing intimidation or retaliation," Gillibrand tweeted this week, noting that she "will be watching this case closely."

Union supporters previously told CBS MoneyWatch they were moving to organize to have a say in their working conditions. They also contend their pay is lower than workers at comparable companies and that they had been denied promised raises. Some workers also said that software Tesla uses to track their productivity left little time for things like bathroom breaks.

Tesla on Friday said it tracked workers' time "to improve the ease of use of our labeling software," and called the claim that workers are pressured to skip breaks "categorically false."

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